Were the ads sponsored by the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign to run on Seattle Metro buses this month really so offensive and incendiary that King County chose wisely in not running them? Or do they constitute a legitimate and reasonable political message that should not have been censored in this fashion? I believe the correct answer was what occurred — that the ads did not run — because of the dishonest and false nature of the message, and its potential to promote anti-Jewish hate crimes.
Even if none of the eight words in the ad are expressly false in and of themselves (“Israeli war crimes — your tax dollars at work. www.Stop30billion-Seattle.org”), they present, nevertheless, what amounts to a lie, especially since, according to the group, the ads refer to the “Cast Lead” operation of 2008-2009.
Some Israeli soldiers committed during that operation what are defined in international law as “war crimes.” And the U.S. does provide aid to Israel, although it is not clear what figure “$30 billion” represents, since foreign aid to Israel totals approximately $3 billion a year (most of which is spent back in the U.S., supporting thousands of American workers).
Why then, is the ad so dishonest? Because of the unspoken inferences intended to mislead the public into drawing a completely false picture of Operation Cast Lead and the ongoing conflict in general.
The ad is dishonest for three reasons:
1. The term “war crime” is undefined and suggests the Israel Defense Forces commits flagrant and widespread intentional infliction of death and destruction on a civilian population. That is a lie.
2. The ad suggests Israel waged (or is still waging?) an unjustified war, completely ignoring the fact that Israel acted in self-defense and the unnamed other side was the aggressor.
3. By singling out Israel, the ad implies Israel is the only U.S.-supported country committing war crimes or other human rights abuses, when in fact the U.S. supports many nations with human rights records far worse than what Israel is accused of (never mind that those accusations are often false).
Let’s look at each one:
1. War crimes. This is actually a very broad term as used in international law, and can mean anything from smashing windows in cars and houses to bombing entire cities and killing millions of people. Most armies engaged in open warfare will have some soldiers who commit war crimes, including the U.S. military. In fact, the IDF has been praised from sources such as Richard Kemp, a colonel serving in army of Great Britain, for showing the greatest restraint possible during a war in which the enemy hid among civilians. If the IDF deserves to be singled out, it is for having a remarkable absence of the kind of incidents that plague other militaries engaged in warfare, including our own U.S. military, which has its own shameful record of war crimes against civilians (My Lai, Haditha).
2. Ignoring the real war criminals in this situation. While it may be debatable whether and to what extent the IDF committed “war crimes,” there can be no question whatsoever that the Hamas-led Gazans committed worse, specifically, crimes against humanity (which also constitute “war crimes”) by intentionally attacking civilian targets with homemade rockets, and committing murders in the shootings, stabbings, and suicide bombings that killed nearly 1,000 Israeli civilians over the course of 15 years. The Gazans were the aggressors and Cast Lead was a defensive operation — which was recognized by most of the international community at the time, including Egypt and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president. It is hardly fair, equitable, or even sensible to blame the side defending itself from armed aggression without condemning the aggressor, let alone blame an ally of the defender.
3. The U.S. supports nations with far worse human rights violations: The U.S. provides support to dozens of nations all over the world in different ways. Some nations receive direct aid, some receive indirect aid through trade agreements or alliances. Some of these nations are also embroiled in regional conflicts: China has illegally and oppressively occupied Tibet. Indonesia until recently occupied East Timor. Turkey invaded and occupies part of Cyprus. Parade Magazine’s “World’s Worst Dictators — Top 10 of 2009” includes the leaders of China and Saudi Arabia, countries whose wealth derives largely from its relationship with the U.S. and relationships nurtured and sanctioned by the U.S. government. In the Middle East alone, besides Saudi Arabia, there are numerous U.S.-supported Arab dictatorships that oppress their own citizens, including Egypt, which receives nearly the same amount in foreign aid as Israel.
This ad was outrageous because of the blatant hypocrisy and unfairness — not just for distorting the true character of the conflict, but for singling out Israel from among all of the U.S.-supported nations far more deserving of condemnation.
Metro, as a governmental agency, has a duty under the First Amendment to apply its policies in a fair and neutral manner, but it is not required to run any ad it gets. When I wrote to the King County Council, I stated:
“Less than five years ago several Jewish women were shot and one was killed by an attacker citing as his excuse the same kind of statements as will appear in this ad campaign, More recently, synagogues (including mine) and a Jewish school (where my son attends) were defaced with anti-Jewish hate messages.”
SMEC spokesperson Ed Mast, in a recent article, disingenuously claimed his group wants to start a “dialogue.” This ad is nothing of the sort, it is a lying soundbite and the danger of anti-Jewish violence that could result is all too real. King County has no duty to permit its property to be exploited in this fashion and we have no duty to stand silently by while Mast’s group engages in hate speech.
This raises a question most Israel supporters avoid: What motivates Ed Mast, Rev. Rich Lang of Seattle’s Trinity United Methodist Church, Evergreen State College Prof. Steve Niva, and other vocal activists in our area to expend so much energy vilifying Israel?
For us to confront that question, given what appears to be a hyper-focus on Israel disproportionate to any other foreign policy issue, is of utmost importance now. Regardless of the inner motives of these people, the effect of the ad calls to mind a comment by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman: “Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.”
This is, of course, exactly what the ad in question does. It’s why I believe it was just and proper to protest and oppose the running of this ad just as we would have done had Metro proposed to run any ad that promoted racism or bigotry against Jews or any other group.